What if you win a meet but no one knows?
I’m not a competitor.
I may show up at a competition that I’ve trained meticulously for. I may compete in said competition, and maybe even place really well. My collection of trophies and medals belies my premise, leaving a trail indicating that, perhaps, I am actually a competitor.
I have been in many competitions, locally and internationally. It does seem that I have competed. But I am not a competitor.
Raise your hand if you remember the three Greek ideals of Play painstakingly presented by Daniel Dombrowski. If you’ve followed any of my writings over the years, you know what I’m talking about, so repeating it here would deny you the tedious pleasure of searching through my previous writings (including my book, Are You Useful). Here’s a quick reminder: Frolic, Competition, and War.
Competition was ideally an organized rivalry bringing athletes together to test each other, learn, and grow, despite the outcome. An athlete was there to bring the best out of both their opponent and themselves. Competition included the opponent as part of a team ultimately working towards improvement of everyone involved, which can often seem absent in the approach and execution of modern sport, which tends to resemble the darker power struggle version of Play, known as War.
Win at all costs, conquer, dominate, destroy. When insecurity needs validation, we have modern sports as our deity. The current pursuit of sport glory is often a distraction from empowerment, masquerading as importance.
Something I welcome you to ponder is the difference between being the best versus being your best. Only one of those is completely in your hands and on your terms. Being the best is often directed by a completely external script, power at the cost of being controlled by a prefabricated journey based on ideals that may have little to do with the authentic self.
My best has nothing to do with conquering someone else. I’m a middle-aged man with nothing to prove. If I beat someone, hopefully it was because we mutually pushed each other to explore the absolute limits of our abilities, and the wind just happened to be blowing my way at that very moment. My opponent helped me turn on new levels of performance mojo. For a blip on history’s radar, my dial turned to a slightly louder 11 than my battle-mate, and I was victorious. While we’re both being wiped up off the floor, I’d better grok the lessons this struggle wrung from my soul.
Because I’m not a competitor. I’m a student.
To be a proper athlete, ‘twould behoove me to provide the same experience for my opponent. I’m not a competitor. I’m a teacher.
Competition is challenging, sometimes brutal, Play, providing a unlimited topo map of the soul, constantly asking me where I want to go and how far, creatively, physically, and involving all the stuff of the head and the heart. I’m not a competitor. I’m an explorer.
OK. If the goal of competition is to win, and you allow me to define winning as learning, growing, teaching, and exploring, then yes. I’m a goddamn competitor.
This weekend I competed. This journey was unique. This was to be my last strongman meet for a while. The decision to enter this particular meet was made about three weeks out, which, in strength sports language, means last minute. There ain’t much new muscle or skill to be acquired in that limited time frame, just a little practice of the events. This isn’t a timeline to prepare for peak performance, and that was the point. Peak condition sounds like an ideal place, doesn’t it? Peak sound synonymous with Best, yet peak is far from best anything. Every part of your system, your movement machine, is on the edge of a little something we call Too Far. You are on the brink, teetering between extreme capability and uselessness. Your Strongest is also your most vulnerable, and nothing about it is sustainable.
It hurts. The journey to this peak is exactly the climb it seems like it should be, and I carry an added burden when I leave my comfy basecamp. I participate in a sport that I am not remotely built for. Not only did I start competing in this sport in my 40s, and I’m currently spitting distance from 50, but I’m built like a middle distance runner who happened to accidentally put on a little bit of muscle in the off season… and even though that off season has been about 25 years, there’s still not a lot of bulk. Small muscle bellies, long tendon attachments, tiny bones, average height, wrong twitch fiber dominance. It’s no wonder Jim Wendler once affectionately called me skinny-ass strong (to which I added -ish).
#Skinnyoldguystrongman is my hashtag, and it’s a lonely one.
My father was an above average marathon runner for a chunk of my youth, highlighting which part of the strength spectrum my DNA seemed more geared towards. He also helped carve my love of good ol’ free thought, and so in my early gym days (as I was already approaching 30) there was an angry punk in me screaming “bring on what I’m not supposed to be good at!”
The progression was almost cliche in the strength world: bodybuilding (ha) to powerlifting to weightlifting to strongman, and being bravely mediocre at all of them. Oh, but strength came with lessons. Heck I wrote books about those lessons. Stuff I probably wouldn’t have gleaned if I pursued what I was “built” for.
Peaking for competitions, though… nothing highlighted my incompatibility with strength sports more than the training struggle for competition prep. Nothing drove me more to covet that incompatibility and then punch it in its dick, either.
There was never a clear cut winner, but within every training cycle, I definitely fought almost to the death with convention. And every time I’d walk away with lessons about presence, awareness, recovery, adaptation, volume, and, ultimately, joy… or sometimes the lack of it.
Here’s a quick insight into the Big 3 of strength sports, Powerlifting (PL), Weightlifting (WL), and Strongman/woman: The barbell sports, Powerlifting (squat, bench, and deadlift) and Weightlifting (clean & jerk and snatch), have a very welcoming entrance point. A complete neophyte may engage in competition at a local level, putting in hard work and at least walking away with a “total,” the combined weight of the best successful lifts. There is no minimum for this, no required total to get started. The new competitor can then continue to increase that total, eventually meeting the requirements needed for national-level competitions, if that is the goal, or simply keep having a blast testing their prowess at local meets.
Strongman competition, though, has a semi-defined starting point, which makes it different from weightlifting or powerlifting. That starting point is different per competition, but there are usually multiple events that, due to the strangeness of the implements, need to have minimum weight requirements. All are welcome to try, but if you can’t meet the prerequisites, the sport doesn’t wait for you. Like the height sign at the amusement park rides, you have to be this strong to garner a total. Now feel free to zero on an event (we all do at some point), but zeroing on multiple events will eventually hit you in the feels. In smaller, local competitions in PL and WL, anyone can hop in and probably get a total. There is no minimum… if you can at least lift the bar, you can walk away with successful lifts, making the two barbell sports very approachable. Strongman/woman is a little different.
I’ve qualified for Strongman Nationals just about every year for the past half decade or longer. That means I’m welcome to show up and try to lift really heavy shit against some really strong folks from around the country. But I’d be offering those really strong folks no competition at all, barely meeting the absolute base level of strength needed to move that really heavy shit. That has no appeal to me, and the level of work it would take to be even slightly competitive at that level would take permanent toll on my body. That’s a Peak that I may never recover from.
See, every year, the base level of strongman goes up. What was challenging for competitors 5 years ago is now standard, maybe even entry level. Every peak has to be a little higher now. A little more weight in an event means a LOT more training. Every bit of extra load means extra force and extra danger, and for little ol’ me who was busy pushing my limits to begin with, a “little more” may as well be exponential.
Peak strength is an illusion. Fleeting. A temporary passenger who weaves a good tale, but doesn’t tell the truth. Peak strength is not your walking-around strength. It’s not your daily ability. That’s foundation strength, and the relationship between the peak and the foundation takes a lifetime to understand.
And that was the goal of this particular competition.
Training to peak for each competition became a larger and more painful climb. But in the process over all these years, my foundation strength rose considerably. Could I compete with what I’ve accumulated? In other words, could I compete without really training?
Let me rephrase that. Could I compete with simply the accumulated strength I’ve built from all the training of the last decade or so? This particular competition I entered was on the lighter side, roughly where the starting weights would’ve been about 5 years ago… where I would’ve had to train hard to peak 5 years ago. Now that I have that strength ready and waiting, can I do a meet sans peak training?
The meet was hosted by my tribe-away-from-home, The Training Hall. Folks familiar with strongman will know this place as home to both legendary strongman Odd Haugen, and current reigning World’s Strongest Man, Martins Licis. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve trained and competed here. In fact my history with them goes back to when the Hall was actually Odd’s garage.
When I registered, they decided to enter me in two categories. I was only interested in the old, skinny guy class, called Master’s Lightweight Division, but they also threw me in the Open Lightweight Division, with a bunch of young punks who are too strong for their own good. Thankfully they don’t know it yet. Hopefully, they never figure it out.
In my head, I wasn’t competing with those kids. In (painful) peak shape, maybe I could’ve offered up a podium finish. As it was, the 5th place I earned was more than I expected.
I did, however, win the skinny, old guy class, if I kept track of everyone properly. At medal time, though, something became obvious. In the chaos of running the biggest meet this tiny gym had ever seen, everyone forgot I was competing as said skinny old guy.
I won a meet, but no one knew it.
The next 24 hours confirmed the original premise of this post. That’s a fairly short period of time to run through a series of changing emotions, but the outcome, after spending some unnecessary time on the other end of the spectrum, was So What?
No one cares if I win, place, or hit dead last. Now this part is important, because it doesn’t come from a nihilistic place, but…
This includes my friends.
I was surrounded by friends, including some very dear to my heart. What they do care about for me isn’t my placing. This doesn’t mean they don’t support my success. In fact, that’s what they excel at. But my close tribe has an entirely different measuring stick for success. My rankings at a strongman meet don’t merit a concern. My journey, on the other hand, does. And being forgotten at the medal ceremony didn’t distract from the journey at all. In fact, the student, teacher, explorer competitor in me ended up writing this piece as a winner, no matter how I placed in rankings last weekend.
Mission accomplished in ways I wasn’t even aware I needed.
*Aftermath: I was publicly acknowledged as the winner of my class when the results were posted online. This, unfortunately, bumped everyone down a notch who got medals on the platform, including my newest teammate, John. But I know he, too, will take it in stride, since his journey was simply about committing to a new challenge and kicking it’s ass, which he did.
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‘Twould also behoove you to check out my movement lab project about burpees as a template for better movement and strength. Check it out here.